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Something sinister is going on in Baronville. The rust belt town has seen four bizarre murders in the space of two weeks. Cryptic clues left at the scenes–obscure bible verses, odd symbols–have the police stumped.
Amos Decker and his FBI colleague Alex Jamison are in Baronville visiting Alex’s sister and her family. It’s a bleak place: a former mill and mining town with a crumbling economy and rampant opioid addiction. Decker has only been there a few hours when he stumbles on a horrific double murder scene.
Then the next killing hits sickeningly close to home. And with the lives of people he cares about suddenly hanging in the balance, Decker begins to realize that the recent string of deaths may be only one small piece of a much larger scheme–with consequences that will reach far beyond Baronville.
Decker, with his singular talents, may be the only one who can crack this bizarre case. Only this time–when one mistake could cost him everything–Decker finds that his previously infallible memory may not be so trustworthy after all…
WHO KILLED YOU?
Or, who murdered you?
There was, after all, a distinct difference.
Amos Decker was standing on the rear deck of a house where he and his FBI colleague, Alex Jamison, were staying while visiting Jamison’s sister. He used two fingers to neck-cradle his third bottle of beer of the evening while he contemplated these questions. He knew that most people never thought about these issues, because they had no reason to do so. Yet accurately answering the latter question dominated Decker’s professional life, which was really the only life he had left.
He was also aware that the difference between the two queries was more complex than some might have believed.
For example, one could kill a person without legally committing murder.
There was accidental death: Your car inadvertently slams into another, with death as a result, or you drop a gun and it goes off and the bullet strikes a bystander. Someone was dead but it wasn’t legally recognized as murder.
There was assisted suicide: A terminally ill person is suffering and wants to end it, and you help the person do so. The practice was legal in some places and unlawful in others. Again, someone was dead. Unlike the accidental death, the death was intentional, but it was not the same as murder, because it had been the choice of the deceased to end his life.
There was justifiable homicide, the best example of which was self-defense. There you intended to harm another, but the law said you had the right to defend yourself.
There were varying degrees of murder.
If you were negligent in causing that car accident or dropping your weapon, and someone died, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter.
A spontaneous bludgeoning, resulting in death, could end with the perpetrator being charged with the more serious crime of voluntary manslaughter.
Second-degree murder, a close cousin to voluntary manslaughter, had the element of malice aforethought, and possibly recklessness, but not the additional one of premeditation, or lying in wait, as it was often called.
Decker sipped his beer as he went through the legal requirements of intentionally ending the life of another. The last one was the worst of all, in his estimation.
First-degree murder almost always required the specific elements of willfulness, premeditation, and malice aforethought. You wanted someone dead for your benefit and you laid out a plan in advance to make sure that death happened.
The harshest legal consequences of all were reserved for these heinous acts.
Going after these types of criminals was what Decker had done for almost his entire adult life.
He took another sip of beer.
I catch killers. It’s really the only thing I’m good at.
He stared out at the night sky over northwestern Pennsylvania, near the Ohio border, in a place called Baronville. He heard it had once been a thriving mill and mining town, owing its very existence to the eponymous Baron family, which had dug the mines and built the mills. However, those engines of commerce were long since gone. What was left wasn’t much. Yet people seemed to be getting by in a variety of ways, and with varying degrees of success. A similar pronouncement could be made about many places across America.
Inside the house, Alex Jamison was sharing a glass of white wine with her older sister, Amber, and talking to her precocious soon-to-be-six-year-old niece, Zoe. Decker and Jamison were here on vacation from solving crimes as part of a special task force at the FBI back in Washington. Decker had been reluctant to go with Jamison, but their boss, Special Agent Bogart, had insisted that he take some type of leave. And when Jamison had suggested that he accompany her on a visit to her sister, Decker couldn’t think of a single other place to go.
So here I am.
He took another sip of his beer and studied his size fourteen feet.
When they had arrived here, introductions had been made, hugs given, pleasantries exchanged, bags put away, and Jamison had given out housewarming gifts to her sister and niece, because Amber and her family had only recently moved here. Dinner was prepared and eaten, but long before then Decker had run out of things to say and ideas of what would be socially acceptable to do. And that’s when Jamison, who knew him perhaps better than anyone else, had discreetly suggested that he take his beer—and his awkwardness—outside, so the sisters could catch up in the way that women often did while no men were around.
The social awkwardness had not always been a part of him. The six-foot-five, three-hundred-pound–plus—well, maybe more than simply plus—Decker, a former professional football player, had once been outgoing, gregarious, a bit goofy even, fun-loving and always ready with a quip.
Then had come the vicious blindside hit to the head on the football field that had changed his life, and who he was, forever. The resulting brain trauma had almost killed him. And while he had survived, the blow had forced his brain to rewire itself to allow healing to occur. This process had left two distinct marks on him.
One was hyperthymesia, or perfect recall. Those possessing such a condition often could apply it only to autobiographical information, and often had below-average memory capacities in other aspects of their lives. But not Decker. It was as though someone had placed a camera with a limitless capacity to take pictures in his head. He was the memory man, unable to forget anything. Decker had found it a decidedly mixed blessing.
The second result of the hit was his developing synesthesia. He associated odd things, like death, with a color. In the case of death, it was a visceral electric blue that could raise the hairs on the back of Decker’s neck and make him feel sick to his stomach.
Along with his brain change, his personality had been transformed. The gregarious fun-loving prankster had forever vanished, and in its place—
With his football career irreversibly over, he had gone on to become a cop and then a homicide detective in his hometown of Burlington, Ohio. He had been married to a wonderful woman named Cassandra, or Cassie as he always called her, and they had had a beautiful child named Molly.
It was all past tense, because he no longer had a wonderful wife or a beautiful child.
Who killed you?
Who murdered you?
Well, Decker had figured out who had taken his family from him. And the person had paid the ultimate price.
Yet it was nothing in comparison to the price that Decker had paid. That he would pay every minute until he drew his last breath.
“Aunt Alex says you can’t forget anything.”
Decker turned from these musings to the source of the query.
Zoe Mitchell, twin blonde ponytails, long-sleeved pink shirt with flowers on it, and white shorts showing off dimpled knees, stared curiously at him across the width of the wooden deck attached to the back of her house.
“My memory’s pretty good, yeah,” said Decker.
Zoe held up a sheet of paper. On it were about a dozen very long numbers. She passed it to him.
“Can you remember all these?” she asked hopefully.
Decker glanced at it and then handed the paper back to her.
“Does that mean you can’t remember them?” said Zoe, the disappointment clear on her freckled face.
“No, it means that I already did.”
He recited the numbers back to her, in the same order they appeared on the page, because that’s what he saw in his head: the page of numbers.
She broke into a toothy grin. “That is so cool.”
“You think so?” said Decker.
Her pale blue eyes widened at his remark. “Don’t you?”
“Sometimes, yeah. It can be cool.”
He leaned against the deck railing and sipped his beer while Zoe watched him.
“Aunt Alex says you catch bad people.”
“We do it together. She’s got good instincts.”
Zoe looked puzzled by his response.
He explained, “She reads people really well. And she sees things that others don’t.”
“She’s my favorite aunt.”
“How many aunts do you have?”
She sighed. “A lot. None of them are as cool as Aunt Alex.” Zoe brightened. “She came to visit because my birthday is almost here. I’m turning six.”
“I know. She told me we’re all going out to dinner for it.”
Decker looked around awkwardly as Zoe continued to watch him.
“You’re really, really big,” she observed.
“Not the first time I’ve heard that.”
“You won’t let any of the bad people hurt Aunt Alex, will you?” she asked, her features and tone suddenly turning anxious.
Decker had been about to take a sip of beer. He slowly lowered the bottle. “No, I won’t. I mean, I’ll do my best never to let that happen,” he added a bit lamely.
There was a low rumble of thunder in the distance.
“I guess a storm is coming,” observed Decker quickly, looking for any way to change the subject.
He glanced at Zoe to find her innocent gaze still uncomfortably on him. He looked away as another guttural growl of thunder was heard.
Summer was over, but the thunderstorms often accompanying the segue into fall appeared to be bearing down on them.
“Definitely getting closer,” said Decker, more to himself than to Zoe.
He looked at the rear yard of the house that backed up to Zoe’s. It seemed an exact copy. Same footprint, same wooden deck off the back. Same patch of yard. Same type of maple smack in the middle of the wilting grass.
But there was one difference.
The lights in the other house were flickering now. On, then off. On, then off.
Decker looked to the sky. Despite the rumbles of thunder, there wasn’t any lightning yet, at least that he could see. Also, the temperature had dropped some, and there was a low fog building that, along with the gathering clouds, obscured the sky even more.
A few moments later, he saw the reflection of red lights zip by overhead. He couldn’t see the plane, but it was no doubt trying to make it in or out before the storm hit full force, he thought.
He glanced back at the house and watched the lights going on and off, almost like Morse code. It might be the humidity, he thought. Damp wiring could cause flickering.
He heard a noise somewhere. Then he heard it again. And another time. The same sound over and over. It was two distinct sounds, actually, one a solid thud and the other like something scraping against something.
Then a car started up. It had to be on the street that fronted the house he was looking at, he concluded. They’d be driving right into the gathering storm.
A few minutes passed and then came the initial lightning spear. It seemed to disappear right into the earth directly in front of him. It was followed by a much louder boom of thunder. The sky was growing increasingly black and ominous. The winds were pushing the system swiftly across the area.
“We better go inside,” said Zoe nervously. “Mommy says that more people get hit by lightning than you think.”
“Who lives in that house, Zoe?” Decker asked, pointing to the other house.
Zoe had her hand on the door leading back inside. She said, “I don’t know.”
Decker’s gaze focused and then held on a sudden spark of light.
It was inside the other house, behind one of the windows. He didn’t know if it was a light from inside simply reflecting off the glass, or whether the cause might be something more complicated, and potentially dangerous.
He set his beer down and hustled off the deck. But he needed to find out.
“Where are you going?” Zoe cried after him; her voice held a note of panic.
He called over his shoulder, “Go inside, Zoe, I just want to check on something.”
Another crack of lightning was followed by such a deafening explosion of thunder that Zoe bolted inside, while Decker ran the other way.
Despite his bulk, Decker had been an elite athlete for many years. He grabbed the top of the fence separating the two properties, neatly swung over the barrier, and dropped inside the other yard.
He hustled across the grass toward the house. He could feel the temperature plummeting as the storm fully enveloped the area. The wind kicked up and buffeted him. He had grown up in the Midwest and was used to these dangerous weather systems that made the Ohio Valley their stomping grounds, conjuring up and then spinning off tornadoes like a cancer spawned mutant cells.
He knew the rain would be coming next, probably in sideways sheets.
He reached the house’s pressure-treated deck and raced up the steps. He didn’t look back at Amber’s house, so he didn’t see Alex Jamison come out and gaze quickly around for him.
He got to the window where he’d seen the reflection of light. He could now smell it, which confirmed his suspicions.
Electrical wiring had gotten mixed with liquid. He had investigated homicides involving arson, and the smell was unmistakable. There was a fire in there.
He put his face to the glass and peered inside. Electrical fires tended to move fast, usually behind walls where they could spread unseen until it was too late.
A moment later, he saw something that confirmed his worst fear: a flicker of flames and the rise of smoke.
Then he looked to the right as a spear of lightning lit up the whole area.
Decker froze at what he was seeing in the illumination provided by the lightning strike. A moment later, he broke free from his paralysis and ran to the back door. Without hesitating he hit it with his shoulder like he had many football blocking sleds. The flimsy door buckled under the massive impact and fell open.
The storm was screaming overhead now, so Decker couldn’t hear Jamison calling to him. She had rushed off the deck and was running to the rear fence when Decker had crushed the door. The rain was falling hard now, whipped by the wind into a stinging frenzy, as the storm emptied millions of gallons of water over the western edge of the Keystone State. Jamison had run out of her shoes and was soaked before she was halfway to the fence.
A drenched Decker burst into the kitchen and turned right. He had his Beretta out and pointed in front of him. He now wished he hadn’t had all that beer. He might need his fine motor skills to be better than they presently were.
He moved swiftly down the darkened hallway, bouncing off one wall. Something fell to the floor as he brushed against it.
It was a picture.
Decker cursed himself because he had just contaminated what was now a crime scene, an act he would have found unforgivable if someone else had done it. Yet it couldn’t be helped. He didn’t know what was going on here. What he had seen might just be the tip of the iceberg.
He cautiously poked first his gun and then his head around the corner. He cleared the space with two long visual passes and straightened.
Decker now knew what had triggered first the spark and next the flames.
And the flickering lights.
Exposed electrical wires had indeed been commingled with liquid.
But it wasn’t water.
It was blood.
Decker peered around the corner to see a soaked, shivering, and barefoot Jamison standing farther down the hall from where he’d just come.
“You got your gun?” he asked quietly. Wave after wave of electric blue light was pouring over him. He felt nauseous and dizzy.
Jamison shook her head.
He motioned her toward him.
She hurried forward, turned the corner, saw what Decker already had, and stopped dead.
Decker nodded. It was a fitting expression for what they were both seeing.
After all, the man was hanging from the ceiling.
A rope had been inserted through a hook that had once held a chandelier that was now lying on the floor.
The noose had been placed around the man’s neck.
Yet death by hanging did not typically cause blood loss.
Decker stared down at the wooden floor. The blood had pooled and then flowed toward the wall, where it had encountered the frayed electrical cord of a floor lamp and begun the electrical shorting process.
Before Jamison had appeared, Decker had used his foot to tap out the sparks after unplugging the cord. Part of a square of carpet and a dangling strip of wallpaper had caught on fire. He had used his wet jacket to beat out the flames on the wall, and had rolled up the carpet to smother the fire there. Then he’d stepped back so as not to further interfere with the crime scene. It was right then that Jamison had called out.
His gaze ran up and down the man’s body, searching for a wound that might explain the copious amounts of blood.
He saw none. And he couldn’t do a deeper probe now. That would have to await the police. But something else couldn’t wait.
Giving voice to what he’d been thinking, Jamison whispered, “Do you think there’s anyone else in the house?”
“That’s what we need to find out. Do you have your phone?”
“Neither do I. And I didn’t see one in here. Okay, I want you to go back to your sister’s house and call the cops. I’ll finish searching the place.”
“Decker, you need to wait for the police. You have no backup.”
“Someone may be hurt, or the killer may still be here.”
“It’s the latter possibility I’m worried about,” hissed Jamison.
“I am a police officer,” replied Decker. “I’m trained to do this, and I’ve got a gun. And the odds are very good that if the killer is still here, he’s smaller than me. Now go.”
Jamison slowly turned and then ran down the hall and back out into the rain.
Decker cleared the first floor. The house had a second story and, if it was a true copy of Jamison’s sister’s place, a basement. He moved back down the hall to the stairs leading up. He took the steps two at a time, feeling his thigh muscles tighten a bit with each upward lunge. While spending ten years in uniform before becoming a detective back in Ohio, he had gone into homes where people had died. There were procedures you followed to clear spaces as safely as possible, and all of them were grafted onto his brain. Still, it wasn’t really like riding a bike, for one very compelling reason.
Bikes didn’t shoot back at you.
There were two small bedrooms with closets upstairs and a Jack-and-Jill bathroom in between. Decker cleared all of them and found nothing. The place looked abandoned.
Maybe there was nothing to find except the hanging dead man on the main floor. He slipped back downstairs and found the door to the basement.
There was a light switch at the top of the stairs, but Decker didn’t move to turn it on. He didn’t know if the electrical short had affected the lights in the rest of the house, but, right now, darkness was his friend. He tested each step before fully placing his weight on it. Still, there were some slight creaks and he winced with each one. He reached the bottom of the stairs without anyone trying to attack him.
He looked around. It was quite dark down here and he couldn’t see very clearly, but the space appeared to be unfinished. There was the musty odor that one often associated with unfinished basements.
He cautiously moved forward and almost fell to the floor. Regaining his balance, he quickly retreated.
He had to risk a light now. He skittered back up the steps and flipped the switch. The lights came on. His gun pointed in front of him, he slowly came back down the stairs until he saw what he had tripped over.
The face looked up at him as the electric blue pulses once more started drumming against him.
It was a man, who looked to be in his late thirties. He had dark hair and pale skin, and was of a medium build. He appeared to be about five-ten, although it was hard to be accurate about that since he was lying on the floor.
All those observations flowed automatically through Decker’s mind from his long career as a cop. And they were secondary to the single most important observation he was making.
The man was in a police uniform.
Decker knelt down next to him and checked for a pulse at his neck.
There was none, and the skin was very cold. He felt the limbs. They were stiff, indicating that rigor had begun. Decker’s experience as a homicide detective caused him to automatically consider both the cause and the timing of the death.
He ran his gaze over the body, looking for wounds, but saw none. He wasn’t going to move the corpse. He had already compromised the crime scene enough.
He focused on the man’s mouth. There was a bit of foaming there. That could be an indication of at least a couple of ways he could have died.
Okay, cause of death is not obvious. What about timing?
He looked at the man’s nostrils. Blowflies. Female. They’d already laid eggs, but the infestation was minimal. Blowflies could smell dead flesh from miles away and were a policeman’s best friend, because with the biological death clock having commenced, the invasive insects would help determine the time of death.
But when Decker put all of these forensic elements together, mental alarms started sounding. Something was definitely not making sense.
If the limbs were stiff, that meant the deceased had been dead for a while. In fact, the body could be reversing the rigor and moving from the large muscle groups back to the small, which meant the person could have been dead quite a long time. And while that jibed with the coolness of the body, it most assuredly did not align with what else he was observing.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of sirens approaching.
He quickly retreated up the stairs, holstered his gun, stepped out onto the front porch, and waited.
A squad car pulled up to the house about fifteen seconds later.
While Decker had been inside, the storm had lessened somewhat, though lightning still crackled and thunder still boomed. At least it wasn’t raining sideways anymore.
As the police officers exited their vehicle, Decker called out and held up his FBI creds. Both cops pulled their weapons and one trained his Maglite on Decker.
“Hands out where we can see them!” shouted one cop, who looked young and a little nervous.
Since Decker already had both hands up in the air where they could definitely be seen, he couldn’t do anything more than say, “I’m a Fed. My partner called this in.”
The cops advanced until they reached the stoop. The other cop, who looked to be in his forties, with a trim, graying mustache, holstered his gun, took the creds, and checked them. Then he illuminated Decker’s face with his light.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Two dead bodies inside. One hanging in the living room. One in the basement.” Decker glanced at the man’s uniform. “I don’t know if he’s a cop or not, but the guy in the basement is wearing the same type of uniform you are.”
“What?” snapped the older cop.
“You say he’s dead?” said the young cop, who was still pointing his gun.
Decker’s gaze swiveled to him. “Yeah, he is. And could you aim your weapon somewhere other than at me?”
The young cop automatically looked to his partner, who nodded while handing back Decker’s credentials.
“Show us,” ordered the older cop.
At that moment, Jamison dashed around the corner.
The young cop swung his gun around and lined her up in his sights.
“No!” roared Decker. He leapt forward and hit the cop’s arm just before he fired. The bullet sailed barely a foot above Jamison’s head. She sprawled in the grass.
The younger cop stumbled back and pointed his sidearm at Decker’s head.
“She’s my partner,” barked Decker. “She’s the one who called you. Alex, are you okay?”
Jamison slowly rose and came toward them on jelly legs. She took a deep breath and nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine.” But she looked like she might throw up.
- On Sale
- Apr 24, 2018
- Page Count
- 624 pages
- Grand Central Publishing